The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori

The Last Samurai
The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori
Mark Ravina
Wiley publishers
ISBN: 0472089702 (Amazon link)

The Last Samurai is the second of three Japanese history books I picked up at the British Museum, and I'll cheerfully admit that the recent film of the same is part of the reason why this biography of Saigō Takamori interested me. I knew enough general Japanese history to recognise that the Tom Cruise let's-try-for-an-Oscar-vehicle bore some resemblance to The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, but that the film twisted the facts out of all recognition in the service of dramatic interest. Personally, I've grown used to this in film, and no longer mind when historical settings are used as convenient backdrops for otherwise generic adventure stories, so long as I'm entertained. Most of us know that the cinema is not a good place to learn history, but equally, it's not a bad place to get people interested, and I strongly suspect the coincidence of titles with the film is resulting in Ravina getting substantially more sales than his publishers might have initially expected for a historical biography. (The title in both cases simply comes from how Saigō is usually remembered.)

It wasn't light reading, but I found this title absolutely fascinating. Although best remembered for the manner of his death, Saigō's involvement with the War of the South-West is nowhere near as clear-cut as I expected, with this most famous episode only covering 20 pages of his biography. The preceding bulk of Saigō's career is wonderfully turbulent, with rapid rises from obscurity to power, followed by periods of disgrace and exile, all set against a constantly shifting geo-political situation as Japan engaged with the West following the isolationist policy of the Tokugawa shogunate. Consequently, it would have been very easy for Ravin to have lost the casual reader like myself, but his writing not only clearly untangles events, but does so in an engaging, well-paced and highly readable manner. This was a pleasant surprise as I was prepared to have to work at this title - dense footnotes, an index, and a bibliography don't always promise riveting prose. Ravin's style is lean, he generally sticks to simple reporting of the facts, letting Saigō's life speak for itself, and he generally avoids editorialising, except where some analysis is essential to understanding the context of events. Interestingly for such a heroic icon, Saigō doesn't emerge entirely favourably, with his warts and all on display.

I personally found the latter half of his life the most interesting, as I have difficulties reconciling Saigō's idealistic, highly moral view of how the world should work with the actions he took. In particular, I find the violent manner of this educated, cultured, statesman's death - leading idealistic young men in a stupid, doomed, romanticised, and badly-planned suicide mission - seems to sum up the contradictions that I find fascinating about the samurai.

Recommended if you have an interest in the period.

Posted: Sun - February 22, 2004 at 01:25 AM